Paul Burnell, composer

Who or what inspired you to take up composing, and pursue a career in music? 

As a teenager I took up the oboe and was very lucky to have through the education system in South Wales, and later in East Devon, a free instrument and access to orchestral playing through very many Youth Orchestra courses.  This early experience led to studying music at degree level, and it was only then that I started playing piano.  It was through playing the piano that I first started composing, but this was not pursued seriously until I was in my thirties.

Who or what were the most significant influences on your musical life and career as a composer? 

I’m not going to deny that my love of pop music in my youth (in the 1970s) has had a impact on some of the types of music I write.  Later, one huge impact was hearing a recording of  Steve Reich’s ‘Six Pianos’ whilst at university in the early 1980s – opening my ears to ‘minimalism’.  I became involved with the organisation ‘Contemporary Music for All’ in the 1990s, and the ideas of inclusiveness and flexible scoring that CoMA fosters has had a continuing influence on how I write.  Other UK composers who have had much influence on how I write are Howard Skempton, Laurence Crane, Stephen Montague, and to a less obvious extent Michael Finnissy.  A single piece that I think of often is the sound-art work ‘I am sitting in a room’ by Alvin Lucier – it is a strong conceptual work, and ties into my fascination with spoken-word and text-based pieces.

What have been the greatest challenges/frustrations of your career so far?  

To be honest – I don’t know how to answer this without me describing my own personality flaws!

What are the special challenges/pleasures of working on a commissioned piece? 

Challenges:  as well as wanting to write a fantastic piece, you want to make sure that it ‘fits’ with the performer – not just in terms of their instrument/voice, but somehow with their personality. On a more practical level, it is sometimes difficult to find out from a commissioner just exactly it is that they want – the basics: how long, when do they need it by, what else they might be playing at a concert, who are going to be the members of the group, how much rehearsal time they are going to have etc.  The pleasures include – going to a rehearsal and finding that the piece works – both in how you imagined it in your head, and that there are no major practical errors!  And then a particular pleasure is seeing the musicians smile after they’ve played through the piece!

What are the special challenges/pleasures of working with particular musicians, singers, ensembles and orchestras? 

I’ve been incredibly lucky to work on several pieces with the percussionist Chris Brannick.  He’s been very supportive and has introduced me to other musicians with whom he plays.  I know that he’ll always give honest feedback and will often try to perform a piece more than once – a real rarity in contemporary music!  And he always gives very committed performances.

The recent experience of working with pianist James Bacon has been fascinating.  His interpretation of pieces is always incredibly sympathetic, but he has also sometimes taken my pieces in directions I’ve not thought of.  I’ve wanted to let him develop those directions as he sees fit… For example, his solution to providing a drone accompaniment to the piece ‘2 Ping’ was particularly ingenious.  I think as a composer you often need to ‘let go’ of a piece and not get too hung-up about a particular mood or tempo.  Is the composer always the best judge of how their piece should sound?

Of which works are you most proud?

The pieces in which the spirit, notation, concept, sound, come together to make something distinctive.  The piece ‘Matrices’ feels that way to me.  On the face of it, the music is really simple, but I’m quite pleased with how the pieces look on the page, and that the programme-concept of the music is reflected in how they were composed, and somehow with my memories of that part of the Dorset coast.

How would you characterise your compositional language? 

I think it’s pretty diverse – and sometimes difficult for me to categorise.  I’d be interested in your view!   Sometimes pop/rock inflected, quite a lot of text/spoken word pieces, some obvious minimalism-inspired pieces, some that I think could be described as being part of a ‘new simplicity’ framework.

How do you work? 

Trying out instruments from my collection, making audio recordings or drafts on the computer, then revising as I notate – but there’s a constant feedback between these separate processes.

What is your most memorable concert experience?

A concert by the Canadian singer-songwriter Jane Siberry at the ICA London in 1988 – the joy of the evening was just completely unexpected.

What do you consider to be the most important ideas and concepts to impart to aspiring musicians? 

I don’t think that I’m particularly qualified to give advice… I think the only advice I can give is what I should say to myself… “be yourself, but a brave version of yourself.”


Paul Burnell was born in 1960, Ystrad, South Wales and now lives and writes in London.  Albums include ‘Leaving the Party on Pluto’, ‘Good to Go’, ‘Sticking with Childish Things’, ‘Face Each Aged Ache’, ‘Cabbage Heads’ and ‘Accompanied Readings Vol. 1’  (2013).  ‘It May Have Been ‘ with pianist James Bacon, released in 2016, and the second volume of Accompanied Readings is due in 2017.

It May Have Been – the piano works of Paul Burnell


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